The Grand Tour: Carla Bozulich and the Geraldine Fibbers

by Jason Cherkis
Option, December 1994

Carla Bozulich is laid up on a red leather couch in her living room looking a little tweaked. It's a swampy Tuesday evening in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and Bozulich, leader of the Geraldine Fibbers, is craving a Marlboro Light--bad. She quit cigarettes 48 hours ago and is hopelessly praying on the smoker's patch fused to her right arm.

"I want to smoke right now," she confesses, rocking back and forth, her knobby knees pressed hard against her chest. "I'm losing my conviction. I'm losing it already."

For Bozulich, giving up nicotine is just one more step away from a past that has threatened her at every turn. Following an entire young adulthood of living the life of what she calls "a junkie whore," in which a drug habit drove her to prostitution, the 28 year-old singer has remained clean for seven years--and has been constantly searching for a musical antidote. In that time, she formed techno-industrial sensations Ethyl Meatplow, an underground boho band that rose from obscurity with its major label debut Happy Days, Sweetheart (Dali/Elektra) and the controversial anti-crack dancefloor hit, "Smokin On the Devil's Johnson." Then suddenly it was all over. The label dissolved, and a rift within the band over whether to add real guitars to their sound proved irreparable. Bozulich was not prepared for the untimely break-up.

"I didn't want it to end," she says. "It felt terrible, I felt like I had been"--she pauses to take a breath--"I felt like I had been beaten down for standing up for myself. I stand up for myself and I got my tail cut off."

Today Bozulich is on the brink of redemption, banking on a quite different musical route. As singer and guitarist for the Fibbers, she tangles the roots of techno-industrial's exact opposite--country music. Behind her husky, lonesome-dove vocal delivery, the Fibbers grind out tear-stained C&W with the drone of the Velvet Underground and the twang of the Flying Burritos. Her cheeks blotchy with mascara and lips flaming red, Bozulich sings so soul-fully that your heart aches right along with hers. Bleached-blonde streaks melt into her brown bob haircut, making the singer appear at once tough and crushingly vulnerable. "That's just the kind of character that I have," she says flatly, "I like things that are on the fringe, that reflect both sides."

During the Fibbers' regular gigs at L.A. nightspots like Luna Park or Fuzzyland, a converted bowling alley, Bozulich leaves her black leather, Ethyl Meatplow dominatrix get-up behind in favor of short flower-print dresses. Onstage, she howls and vamps like a grevious angel, but with only a hint of high drama. Whether wistfully covering George Jones' "The Grand Tour" or singing about her addiction to painkillers in "Marmalade," Bozulich seems to be in full control this time. During the more intense instrumental moments of songs like "Get Thee Gone," the title track of the Fibbers' debut ten-inch on Sympathy for the Record Industry label, she sometimes gazes skyward and flashes a grin the size of Texas. When she croons "I've never learned nothin but hunger and fear" in the song "Outside of Town," you get the feeling that she's found a new teacher.

"I don't want to come off as some hard-luck story--like, bad-luck girl makes good." Bozulich warns, "I'm not really interested in that. It's not anything to do with my life. It's so old, it's been so many years."

Earlier in the evening, sitting around the dinner table with her bandmates, Bozulich talks about the road that led from her hometown of San Pedro to Ethyl Meatplow and now the Geraldine Fibbers. Over bargain-store spinach and mushroom quiche, she constrols the conversation as guitarist Daniel Keenan, bassist Bill Tutton, and violinst Julie Fowells mainly just sit and take note. In the span of roughly half an hour, Bozulich analyzes everything from Rhoda on Mary Tyler Moore to the early-80s Pedro punk scene that spawned the legendary Minutemen. Dressed in loose Dee Cee overalls and a black stretch top, she comes off headstrong and confident, her jutting cheekbones punctuating her independence.

Bozulich has found contenment with her new band; she's comfortable sharing her anxieties iwth its members. All the Fibbers are transplants to L.A., hailing from places as far afield as New York, Ohio, and Washington State. Despite their different backgrounds, however, they all share a love for things that are a bit used and abused. Tutton carries a complete set of J.D. Salinger paperbacks with him wherever he goes, in case he bumps into someone missing a particular title; Fowells longs to eventually leave L.A. for an old farmhouse in Montana; and Keenan who's learning to play banjo, has a collection of old amps. These days, Bozulich, who doesn't listen to much contemporary music anymore, has on heavy rotation an old tape of her grandma playing songs like "Over the Rainbow" and "Home on the Range" on the piano.

It's a quiet night in L.A. with only a steady hiss coming from the Hollywood Freeway, which runs along the poperty just beyond a ten-foot concrete wall. Even in her edgy, cigarette-less state, Bozulich admits she hasn't felt this comfortable in years.

"Ethyl Meatplow was a really confrontational, physical, calisthenic trip." she explains. Performing live with them was a situation where we would go as long as we could physically do it. It would be 50 minutes and then we would literally collapse. There would be buckets of water pouring off of me. At the end of a show, I would be found under a table grasping for air."

With the Fibbers, Bozulich feels freer to show her true mettle. Country music, she says, allows her to push the emotional envelope even further than she could in the heavy leather world. When she covers Dolly Parton's "Jolene" or George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today," it's as though she's lived those songs. "George Jones manages to pull of the saddest songs in the world with being corny," she says. "He's right up there and pushes the line, but doesn't cross it. That, to me, is a very beautiful thing."

Born in Manhattan, Bozulich moved with her family to San Pedro when was two. Growing up with a step-dad who painted houses for a living and a mother who taught school in Compton, she received a sporadic education--and a terrific case of shyness. "I sorta had this nickname in junior high. I used to go to a school with a lot of lowriders and they named me "Little Sad Girl." It's something I've been able to shake off. It's not like I sit around sad all day, but I do have this kind of melancholy spirit."

During her teen years, she turned to drugs to mask her melancholia, and to Pedro's punk-rock community to find people with whom she could identify. Between skipping classes and hanging out at Minutemen drummer George Hurley's house, she spent a lot of time building up the nerve to form her own band. When she finally got her hands on a $75 Fender MusicMaster with one pick-up, she formed the Neon Veins. "I rarely got an idea for a song from watching anything or listening to anything," she says. "What I got was this feeling that comes over me that's like this strength rising up inside; I just got driven."

"There's that drive, like you need attention," offers Tutton. "I would say Carla is in that category of people who need attention."

Unfortunately, drugs got the better of Bozulich, and until she was 21 and sober she rarely performed and never played with a meaningful steady band. It's a period of her life that she still has trouble talking about. But she has written about it. In the "Death" issue of the L.A. fanzine Ben Is Dead, Bozulich wrote eloquently about her addictions in two articles, including one with Lydia Lunch.

"I was going to write that thing in Ben Is Dead anonymously," she recalls. "And then I went to see Lydia recently because I wanted to talk to her about the article. She really inspired me to use my name. She said, 'Your experience is your strength in your life. That's the most valuable thing you have. Fuckin use it. Tell it. Whatever it is.' It was at that point that I came to terms with it."

Since cleaning up, Bozulich has been constantly trying to get beyond the damage of her past via music--picking up the piano during her withdrawal, moving back to the city and finding other sober musicians, forming Ethyl Meatplow and now the Fibbers. "I know this sounds corny, but for me, music and writing they've been things I do--I have to," she explains. "I can't be happy unless I'm doing it. I can't work through this unless I'm doing it. It only made sense that I should start doing it again."

Even during her drug years, she longed to perform. "I would go see bands play and I would just feel this feeling," she says. "It's sort of a horrible feeling. I couldn't enjoy what I was watching or listening to because I had this thing in my head going, "Fuck I wanna do that. I wanna do that so bad."

A few days later, Bozulich is reclining in a blue-green plastic booth at the back of the House of Pies Family Restaurant for a late Sunday meal. She seems much more at ease and clearer as she begins to put her past into firm perspective with her present status as a performer. One reason for her calmness is that she's given up on the smoker's patch. Quitting cigarettes will have to wait for now; after all, Bozulich has already conquered enough demons for several people.

"Being a performer is really confusing to me, because I'm a really shy person, I'm a private person," she explains. "I don't know where I get my strength from, but I think to get anywhere in this society as a woman, you have to be strong. I realized that a long time ago. I basically force myself, and tried deliberately to force specific parts of my character out. There's a lot of really nerdy, icky stuff in me--some of it's great and some of it's got to go.

"I think that's part of what makes a strong person--to be brave enough to go, 'You now what? That is fucking bullshit.' The real bitch of it is that it doesn't go away right after you say that."

Fortunately things are looking good right now. The Fibbers are getting regular gigs in L.A., they've had a successful tour opening for their friend Beck, and they're being sought by a number of labels. In fact, Bozulich and Keenan, her boyfriend of two years, have managed to scrape up enough money for a new air conditioner for their home.

Later in the evening, with the air conditioner blasting away, the couple write a new song, one they consider their best yet. A ballad entitled "Lilly Belle," its lyrics go: "There are song birds/And sweet things/Where angels bare wings/And bask in the afterglow of good deeds done by tender souls." For Bozulich, the song, like her life, is a perfect balance between sweetness and sadness.

"I was kind of like a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that somebody just threw up in the air, maybe off a building," she says. "And then I caught myself, and put that entire puzzle back together. All 10,000 pieces are where they're supposed to be."

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